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Restaurants & Bars 4

To Pho Cafe - Loop (long)

mark | May 6, 200304:46 PM

Tried this newish Pho spot for the first time and didn't recall anyone mentioning it before, so I thought I'd report back.

I can't be comprehensive because it's only one visit and all I had was a grilled pork banh mi. Still, I cased the joint pretty well and it seems like a welcome, if not life-changing addition to the possbilities around Wabash and Washington. (Next to Oasis - which is where I was headed until I noticed To Pho and changed course on a whim.)

The interior is all nice neutral tones, and there's enough space to sit quietly and think your own thoughts if you choose to dine in rather than take out.

The vibe is classic new-restaurant-eagerness-to-please, with the corollary buzz of adrenalin covering an undertone of mild disorganization. The overall effect is ingratiating and ingenuous, largely because hearts and minds are all clearly in the right place.

Clearly the menu and the execution are geared to make the timid feel comfortable - this is not Pho 777 et. al. However, it is in no way a westernized bastardization, as evidenced by the careful and heartfelt description on the menu. I quote it nearly in full because I found it charming and indicative of the attitude there: "Pho is the quintessential Vietnamese dish; an addictively soothing noodle soup enjoyed at any time of the day... There is nothing more comforting, satisfying or sustaining than a bowl of Pho. The secret to great Pho is the preparation of the broth...simmered over eight hours, carefully strained and decanted to produce a clear broth infused with a hint of cinnamon, anise and ginger, and ladled over a bed of delicate flat noodles. Pho is always served fresh and piping hot, garnished with crispy bean sprouts, cilantro, scallion, sweet basil and a twist of lime."

The basic ordering set-up looks like any Panda Express: a cafeteria style line with hot dishes, egg roll under a heat lamp, and sandwhich makers ready to go. Oddly, the sign that says "Order here" is placed where one would expect the pick-up are to be. Odder still, when I approached to give my order, the man standing under the sign, just smiled and gestured to one of the line guys and said, "he'll take your order." And so he did.

Everything on the line looked very fresh - nothing old, tired or limp. Also nothing fascinating, strange or exotic. Mainstream, well done.

My banh mi was freshly prepared with a very thin pork tenderloin, very nicely marinated and grilled. The bed of salad was beautifully fresh microscopically thin julienned carrots and cucumber, then lettuce, cilantro and mayo. The bread was fresh, but otherwise undistinguished except by its generous size - a slab about 10 X 3.5 inches. My only complaint would be that the very nice pork was ultimately overwhelmed by its surroundings, and you had to go at it separately to appreciate it.

They also included a bag of what they said were freshly made blue corn tortilla chips (!?) I can't vouch for the rationale, but they were damn fine chips; thin and crispy.

Apparently, if you eat in, they deliver the food to your table once you have ordered because I saw a game but hapless waiter traveling the floor trying to find the intended recipient of a bowl of pho. I will say that it was a very enticing looking pho - fragrant, filled with large, fresh-looking chunks of stuff.

All in all, not a chow adventure, but definitely a welcome addition to the area.

To Pho Cafe
19 N. Wabash

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